Amtrak Riders Dodge a Bullet but Texas Wants One

Amtrak dodge a bullet, but most don’t even know it.

Historically, passenger railroads such as Amtrak have had priority over freight rail — i.e. trains used to ship coal, crude oil, produce, etc. — when it comes to getting access to tracks that are shared by both types of trains. Practically, that means that freight trains are forced to pull aside when a speedier Amtrak train carrying human beings wants to pass and zoom on to the next station. Recently, the federal Surface Transportation Board decided to drop a controversial proposal to allow freight rail to get priority on train tracks … a proposal that had sparked a heated battle of back-and-forth legal arguments over the last seven months. If the Surface Transportation Board’s plan had been finalized, it would have meant major delays and slower rides for people who ride Amtrak all over the country.

That practice was put in place when Amtrak was established more than four decades ago: Lawmakers believed that passenger trains, which were struggling with ridership and profitability, needed to have the best chance of arriving at their destinations reliably on-time. The supplies sitting on freight trains could wait, the argument went. But freight rail companies wanted to change that rule: They lose money when shipments sit idle on side tracks, waiting for an Amtrak train to scoot by. And they got some traction last December, when the Surface Transportation Board submitted a proposal for a new rule: Maybe freight rail shouldn’t have to offer up dibs on the tracks to Amtrak, the STB suggested. They wondered whether the current setup was unfair to freight rail companies, and led to inefficiencies on the rails.

The proposal sparked a battle between freight railroads and Amtrak, with many other entities weighing in — including members of Congress and the Department of Transportation, which supported Amtrak.Finally, last week, the Surface Transportation Board decided to make an about-face.

“In light of the broad disagreement among the interested parties,” the STB wrote in their ruling, “the Board finds that going forward with its Policy Statement would not advance its original goal of facilitating a more efficient and effective” rail service.

The Surface Transportation Board also settled a dispute over how to measure “on-time performance.” Amtrak wanted the board to stick with a detailed assessment, which looked at whether trains arrived on-time at each station along the route. Trains that were punctual at some stations would still get a ding for arriving tardy at other stations. But the board had considered using a more limited measurement, which would have only assessed whether trains arrived on-time at the endpoint of the route — which would have ignored delays that occurred at stations along the way. That change would have made it more difficult for Amtrak to force the Surface Transportation Board to take action when Amtrak trains were being systematically held up by freight deliveries. In the end, the Surface Transportation Board opted for Amtrak’s preference.

“The examples provided by individual passengers — e.g., of waiting for hours at unattended stations in remote or unsecured locations at night for late trains that would be deemed ‘on time’ at their endpoints,” the STB wrote in their decision, “convince us that an ‘all-stations’ definition will more appropriately reflect the principle that rail passengers destined for every station along a line, regardless of its size, should have the same expectation of punctuality.”

Amtrak, unsurprisingly, is thrilled. So is their chief lobbying organization, the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Jim Mathews“On behalf of the 40 million Americans who rely on rail each year for travel and work,”  said the organization’s president and CEO Jim Mathews, “NARP congratulates the Board of the STB for coming to the correct decision in these important rulemakings.”

Who’s not excited? The Association of American Railroads, which represents the freight industry. Their spokesman, Ed Greenberg, told Politico that they’re looking at legal recourse.

“It is a disappointment the STB has decided to add mid-point On Time Performance measures, which could result in negative impacts for freight rail customers and consumers,” Greenberg said, “but the freight rail industry will continue to work with Amtrak to provide dependable passenger service in the country.”

Feds Approve Texas High Speed Bullet Rail Plans

The idea of high speed passenger rail from San Antonio to Dallas Ft. Worth, which has been floated and floated again over the past quarter century, is in the news again today, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), who is on the House Transportation Committee, says the Federal Railroad Administration has given the green light to ten potential route options for a high speed rail line that would run from Oklahoma City to Laredo, and then conceivably into Mexico. The Texas Department of Transportation, working with a grant awarded by the FRA in 2008, has been working on routes that could meet future inter-city travel demands, improve rail facilities, reduce journey times, and improve connections with regional public transit service.

Texas Representative Henry Cuellar"This planning level study took into account the potential effects establishing a passenger rail could have on environmental, economic, and social resources, as well as the impact on travel demand and transportation," Mr. Cuellar said.  "Based on these analyses, TxDOT selected preferred routes and service types, conventional rail, higher-speed rail, or high-speed rail, for each section."

The high speed rail would travel at speeds of up to 180-220 miles per hour. Mr. Cuellar says this is simply the preliminary approve by the FRC of potential routes.  He says this opens the door for private investors, or the state, to begin funding such a project, but that is expected to happen well into the future.

"This is a critical step forward for high speed rail linking major trade and energy centers in South Texas with metropolitan areas further north, something I have long supported," he added.

The plan also includes side routes from San Antonio through George West to Corpus Christi, and to McAllen, Brownsville, and Harlingen.  Mr. Cuellar has been working for years with Mexican officials about building passenger rail connections from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrery to link into the system. Several attempts, dating back to the so-called 'bullet train' proposal in the late 1980s, have been floated to build passenger rail along I-35 in Texas, all of which have failed.  The Lone Star Rail District, which has been working for five years to build a standard speed passenger rail line just between San Antonio and Georgetown has made little progress and is now stalled in a dispute over the usage of Union Pacific track.  A proposal to build a high sped rail line from Dallas to Houston has also met with limited success, and may be scrapped in the coming session of the Legislature over eminent domain concerns.